Philosophy can come from a cool, sober sense that the ways of the world should be exposed and explained, its myths dismantled and its depths made plane; that not what is best but what is individual, not what is common but what is ordinary, should preoccupy our efforts.

My subject, as proposed, is “Plato’s Theory of Ideas.” Whether that subject actually interests you, or you think that it ought to interest you, you will, I imagine, regard it as a respectable topic. And yet I have to tell you that every term in the project is wrong-headed. Let me therefore begin by explaining why that is.

First, Plato’s Theory of Ideas is not a subject at all. I mean that it is not a compact mental material to be presented on an intellectual platter. Plato himself refrained from making it the direct theme of any of the twenty-five or more dialogues which he wrote. Instead, the ideas appear in the context of conversation, incidentally, and in scattered places. He gives the reason directly in a letter:

There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter, and from living together, suddenly, like a light kindled from a leaping fire, it gets into the soul, and from there on nourishes itself. [Seventh Letter 341 c]

It follows that my lecture, like all the similar scholars’ efforts, is an outsider’s attempt to short-circuit a required initiation, an attempt which betrays my lack of genuine participation in the truth I am conveying as a molded matter. There is, however, also much in Plato’s works which invites such an exposition of his doctrine: much explicit and provocative argumentation and many promises of an explicitly communicable way to insight.

I have another reason for thus boldly ploughing in. Two summers ago there died that man, that teacher in this school, who, as it seemed to many of us, best knew the way into the Platonic dialogues. His name is Jacob Klein. While he was alive, I, for one, resting secure in the fact of his existence, postponed a bald confrontation of my own with this ultimate philosophical matter, the “Platonic ideas.” But now, I thought, the time had come to be bold in acting on the advice Socrates gives to his friends in the course of the last conversation of his life. When he is asked where they will find someone to charm away their fears that philosophy is impossible once he is dead, he tells them that not only among the Greeks, but also among the barbarians—that, of course, includes us—there are many good people who can do this for them. But then he adds:

And also you must search for them among yourselves, for probably you will not easily find people more able than you are to do this. [Phaedo 78 a]

We speak of “Plato’s Theory,” and let me now say something about that. Its chief sources are, to be sure, the works of Plato, and he is its ultimate master.[1] Yet within his works, the Dialogues, it is not Plato but his teacher Socrates who originates and maintains the theory. Plato presents Socrates as having a life-long hold on it, though he speaks of it under continuously changing aspects. There is a so-called “late” dialogue, the Parmenides, in which the elderly author imagines a boyish Socrates—a wonderful turnabout—and in which Socrates’ claim to authorship of the ideas is elicited by the father of philosophy, Parmenides, himself. (130 b) There is another dialogue, also written late in Plato’s life, the Sophist, in which an old Socrates, just a few weeks away from death, listens silently while a stranger brings the theory to its height with the solution of its deepest difficulty. And finally there is a “middle” dialogue, the Phaedo, in which Socrates, in the last conversation of his life, addresses the theory more directly than anywhere else. Plato, at least, wished the world to think of “Socrates’ Theory of Ideas.”

But then, more accurately, he would not have had us think of a “theory” at all. By a theory we usually mean a conceptual construction designed in principle to yield satisfying explanations for every problem brought before it. A theory ought to be falsifiable, which means it should be capable of being made to reveal its incompleteness or inconsistency by strenuous formal reasoning, so that, if need be, it may be discredited and discarded. Therefore it is its author’s responsibility to present it in the most impregnable form possible. Scholars do find such difficulties aplenty in the Theory of Ideas. But here is a curious circumstance: They are all anticipated in their boldest form in that very dialogue, the Parmenides, which represents a boyish Socrates as first proposing the Ideas.[2] Can you think of another philosophical theory which is presented from the very outset in terms of a series of devastating difficulties, never to be explicitly resolved?

The point is, the Ideas are not a theory.[3] Socrates calls his bringing in of the Ideas a “supposing” (Phaedo 100 b); the Greek word for a supposition is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is, literally, an underpinning, a prop. It comes to him and he comes on it at every departure and at every turning. It is a condition he acknowledges so that he can carry on as he must; it is not a conclusion presented for verification but a beginning which then becomes as well the end of inquiry. It is at first the condition that gives him heart for a search by making it possible for him to launch a question that has in it an arrow making for an answer. One might say that it allows him to turn the unknown into a suspect to be interrogated (Meno 86 b). Thereafter, however, the Idea-hypotheses—for the hypothesis is not the proposition that there are Ideas, but each Idea is itself a hypothesis—are to be used as stepping stones to their own conversion into something not merely supposed but truly beheld, “seen.” (Republic 511 b) Such suppositions are surely not fruitfully accosted by formal hammer-and-tongs argument, though they are, of course, amenable to careful and critical inspection.[4]

I keep calling these Socratic suppositions Ideas. The word idea is a transcription of a term Socrates himself uses, idea. Nonetheless it is an infelicitous term. For, ask yourselves what we usually mean by an idea, for instance when we say: “That’s her idea of a good lecture.” Clearly we mean an opinion, or a mental image, or a concept, something “in our minds,” often in opposition to “the real thing.” This modern notion of an idea, the result of an earth-shaking intellectual upset, is that of a mental representation, something before or in the organ of ideas, the mind. The use of the term would cast my exposition into a false, albeit familiar, frame, and I would only make things worse were I to insist that Socrates’ Ideas are “real,” and worse yet, “really exist.”

Socrates’ own chief word is eidos. Like the word idea it is built on the simple past stem of the word to see, which signifies the act of seeing once done and completed. Scholars have collected the many meanings of eidos which flow continuously from the broadly ordinary to the narrowly technical: shape, figure, face, form, characteristic, quality, class, kind. But, of course, when we dwell on the multiplicity of Greek usages, we are standing the matter on its head, for they are all revealing differentiations from the dead-center of meaning. Eidos means sight, aspect, looks, in that eerily active sense in which a thing that has looks or is a sight presents itself to our sight and our looking. “Looks,” then, and not idea or form, is the most faithful rendering of eidos.[5] But it sounds too curious, and so I shall tonight speak simply of eidos. The plural is eide. Eidos, then, is the word Socrates chooses for his hypothesis. For that choice he might, for this once, be called a “Greek thinker,” since he cherishes and yet overturns the wisdom of his language which associates seeing and knowing: “I know” in Greek is built on the stem of “I saw.” Eidos is a choice full of witty depth, for Socrates’ eidos is invisible, and that is surely the first of all those notorious Socratic paradoxes.

So let me convert the falsely familiar title “Plato’s Theory of Ideas” to “Socrates’ hypotheses: the eide.” I shall pursue the Socratic eidos under seven headings, for it shows as many aspects as there are beginnings to Socrates’ inquiry. Indeed, that is what makes his hypotheses compelling: that such diverse roads lead to the eidos.[6]

I. Excellence and Commonness
II. Speech and Dialectic
III. Questions and Answers
IV. Opinion and Knowledge
V. Being and Appearance
VI. Same and Other
VII. Original and Image

I. Excellence and Commonness


“Philosophy” means literally the love of wisdom. Therefore, it begins in desire (Republic 475 b, Symposium 204 a), in desirous love, in erotic passion, the most acute of all passions. That is what we might call the young beginning of philosophy.[7] It is that love which arises when another human being appears “all-beautiful in aspect,” in eidos, as the Greek phrase goes (Charmides 154 d). We might simply say that this love arises when someone suddenly be­ comes visible for us. For beauty, Socrates says, has the part of shining out eminently and being most lovable, and of coming to us through sense, through the most acute of senses, the sense of sight. Beauty is brilliance, attractive visibility. Beauty is sightliness par excellence, and a sight is that which, without going out of itself, draws us from a distance. But such a sensual sight, such a bodily idea (Phaedrus 251 a), which draws us from afar, affects us with an exciting and utterly confounding sense that it is a mere penetrable veil, a mere representation of some divinity beyond. That is why we speak of such love as adoration. It draws us not to itself but through itself—the enchantedly attentive fascination with sensual looks goes over into something on the other side of that surface. Desire drawn through distance is called love, and if what beckons is on the further side of surface sight, it is called philosophy. For, Socrates says, there is a road—whose first station is the beckoning irritation aroused by one beautiful body­ which leads us to develop an eye first for all kinds of beauty and finally to sight its self-sameness everywhere in the world and in the soul (Symposium 210 a). And that sight, the very source of visibility, is beyond sense, and is the eidos itself.

There is another beginning in what is extraordinary and captivating, a little duller in its visible aspect, though its luster is life-long. (Phaedrus 250 d) It is the outstanding, the excellent. All of us are at some time overcome by admiration for the fullness of being of certain people and their deeds, or even by an animal or a tool. (Republic 353 b, 601 d) Such potency of being, such authentic goodness, is called in Greek arete, which means effective excellence, potent capability. (Laches 192 b) It is more than ordinary usefulness or humanity or sincerity. It is rather a kind of superlativeness—its name is related to aristos, the best. It is competitive, “agonistic,” as the Greeks say, and uncommon, although we speak rightly and yet paradoxically of a “standard” of excellence; we recognize the rare as the exemplary. Excellence and how to engender it is a topic of pervasive fascination. It interests the good, the crafty, the curious, parents, citizens, the corrupt—perhaps them most peculiarly (Meno), them and the young.

But again, as in the case of beauty incarnate, every out­ standing human being, every fine deed, appears as a mere instance, a mere exemplification of excellence. It is spurious for being a mere instance and not the thing itself, deficient in being abstracted from the complete complex of virtues, deformed by being bound to a particular setting. We all know that even the best-founded hero-worship eventually loses its edge and luster as the admirer gains perspective. But the longing to see excellence and be excellent is for that ever-bright, undeformable shape which looms behind each tainted earthly example.

The beautiful and the best, the fine and the good­ through these is the enthusiastic first access to the eidos.

But there is also a more sober beginning, one by whose implications Socrates himself was a little put off in his first youth, because of their meanness. (Parmenides 130 c) Besides the high and shining eidos of what is beautiful and excellent, there is also a common eidos, or better, everything, from a small bee to a grand virtue, displays or “has” an eidos. (Meno 72) Everything we see, everything that appears in any way at all, looks (or sounds or smells) like something—excellences, elements, animals, tools, perhaps even mud. Everything wears the aspect of being of a sort. Unless it has the looks of something, we cannot see it, for it has no coherent shape to draw us; we cannot point to it or name it. To see is always to recognize; just imagine trying to focus on something—I shouldn’t even say “something”—which is truly unique and looks like nothing. Whatever wears a look at all wears that look in common with other things. One look presides over numerous things and that is why we can “identify,” that is to say, make out the sameness, of things, of people, elements, animals, tools. It is not in their multifariousness and difference that we lay hold of things but “by their being bees” or beds or excellences. (Meno 72 b) Socrates is far more interested in this common look than in what we call individuality; that inarticulable deviation from the common which he never thinks of as a source of particular fineness. He pursues the common eidos because it is more revealing than the world’s idiosyncracies.

For we do not learn of this eidos by looking at individual things; on the contrary, we can look at them only because they display this eidos, this look. For example, Socrates would agree that equal objects—say, scratched lines of equal length—are needed to call up in us the thought of equality. ( Phaedo 75 a) But they do that only because they take part in that eidos which makes them look equal to us, even though they are but uncertainly, passingly, approximately equal, and from them we could never gather the sharply precise idea of equality, anymore than we can identify goodness by watching human actions from now till doomsday. That look of things which not one of them has fully or purely but which is common to all, that is a wonder to Socrates.

Both outstanding and common sights, then, point to an invisible eidos beyond.

II. Speech and Dialectic

We have a passing strange power of reaching the things that share a look, all of them, at once. We can say the word, their name. When the eye sees a sight, the tongue can utter a sound which is the sensual appearance of a word, of speech. (Third Letter 342 b) One word reaches, picks out, intends what is the same in many things. One word presides over many things. (Republic 596 a) A word is not a symbol for Socrates, for it does not stand for something by reason of some sort of fit between it and the thing; rather, it reaches toward something utterly other than itself: it intends, it has meaning. Socrates thinks that what words mean is precisely that common eidos. Furthermore, in fixing on speech he discovers what the panoramic familiarity of daily sensory sights leaves obscure: that the visible world, particularly the natural world, appears to be compounded of more and more encompassing visible “sorts,” rising finally into totally invisible kindred groups. The Greek word for a visible sort is, of course, eidos and for a kindred group, genos. The Latin word for eidos is species. Socrates discovers the organization of the world into species and genus,[8] and that things can be placed, defined, by thinking about the meaning of names and connecting them properly in speech. All the world seems to be at the roots akin (Meno 81 d), and that kinship, is articulable in complexes of words.

Such connected speech is what the Greeks call logos. It is, first of all, inner effort, movement, attention, intention; indeed, it is the same as thinking. (Sophist 263 e) It is always an activity of discerning and picking out on the one hand, and comprehending and collecting on the other; in fact, that is what the verb legein means: to select and collect. Socrates thinks that such speech can reveal the interconnections of the world, but only if it “looks to” (e.g., Republic 472 b, 532 a) the interweaving of the invisible eide. Meaningful and true speech is speech in accordance with the eidos (Phaedrus 249 b); names reach for the eide singly and sentences for their interconnections. Socrates calls such reaching speech dialectic, “sorting through.” (266 c)

But he uses that word in another, wider, sense also. Dialectic is serious, and, if necessary, uncompromising conversation with oneself or with another, argument. (I might say that if the enthusiasm of love is young philosophy, argumentative dialectic might be called the youngest philosophy because bright children make lovely dialecticians.) Now dialectic does not only reveal the articulated unity of the world. It can also shake our easy acceptance of its one­ ness. Speech can rake up the obtuse self-contradictoriness of things. Such self-opposition comes out when speech is used in a very original way, in “telling,” as the old term goes, in counting. Take this index finger. It is larger than the thumb but smaller than the middle finger. It is both small and large. It has both looks at once. They coincide in the thing and yet we can tell them apart and count them as each one, and two together in the thing. Whoever takes the deliverances of words seriously will find this provoking—provoking of thought. (Republic 523) Socrates can account for this revelation only by supposing that the eidos greatness and the eidos smallness, which are each one and forever separate beyond the finger, can be fused in the finger. Even if the finger is confounding, the eide are pure and intelligible. The eidos saves the telling power of speech.

III. Questions and Answers

Socrates asks questions, of himself and of others, and he urges them continually: Try to say the answer. His questions are not quite the usual kind, namely, requests for information or provocations of acknowledgement. Nonetheless people see charm or dignity enough in them to try to respond. Socrates’ kind of question is preeminently framed to elicit speech. He asks after that in things which can respond, which is answerable, responsible. The Greek term for what is answerable in that way is aitia, the responsible reason. Socrates thinks that such a responsible reason—we sometimes say “cause”—cannot be some external linkage of events. It is a trivializing answer to the question “Why is Socrates sitting in prison?” to say that he is flexing his joints in a certain way in a certain place. Although he is too modest to say so, he knows he is there because of his peculiar kind of courage. Similarly, if the question is “What makes this face beautiful?,” the answer he insists on is that it is beautiful not by a certain incidental shape or color, but “by beauty.” He calls such answers unsophisticated but safe. (Phaedo 100 d)

They are indeed so simple-minded as to seem at first futile—they are answers for those whose ambition is not to go onward but inward. For their safety is in keeping us to the question, in directing us through its words to a word. To accept that things are beautiful by beauty means that the cause is not to be reduced or evaporated in inquiry but kept in sight and pursued; that granted, the answer can then be safely elaborated. (Phaedo 105 b) For it poses a new and deeper question: What is beauty—or excellence or knowledge?

I should say here that Socrates does not go about idly asking what scholars like to call the “What is X? question.” His questions are not one function with variable objects, but each is asked differently in each conversation; for each is set differently into Socrates’ life and each reaches toward a unique aspect of the complex of being. We all know that the answer to the question what something is can take many forms. Socrates sometimes begins by showing people that they quite literally don’t know what they are talking about and can’t mean what they are saying—a charming but dangerous business for the young. (Apology 33 c, Republic 539 b, Philebus 15 a) Sometimes he proposes a startlingly revealing, seemingly paradoxical, and dubiously convertible identification, for instance that excellence is knowledge. And once in a while he does what Aristotle (Metaphysics 987 b) persuaded people to think of Socrates as doing first and preeminently: He looks for a definition by genus and species and differentiae. There is no one method for interpreting all the dialogues, as Mr. Klein used to say.[9] And yet it is equally the case that Socrates is always after the same end, on a trail of speech on which the one-word answer is a trail blaze. The trail, however, approaches its goal without meeting it, asymptotically. This goal is the eidos named in the simple-minded but safe answer to a Socratic question. Ultimately, to be sure, the eidos toward which the word points cannot be attained through speech but only by itself and through itself (Cratylos 439 b), for it is not speech which determines the eidos but the eidos which calls forth speech. (Parmenides 135 c) Logos is utterly diverse from eidos since its very nature is to be merely about being; it might be said to climb along the eidetic structure, articulating, so to speak, the lattice of an impenetrably crystalline complex.

But meanwhile the question which is steadfastly answered as it itself directs, focuses the soul on the eidos as responsible cause.

IV. Opinion and Knowledge

Socrates comes to grips with the strangest of human scandals: that we are able to talk without speaking and to believe without acting. Human life is peculiarly capable of glorious heights and excruciating failures. It is these heights and depths we most avidly chatter about and have powerfully ineffective beliefs about. Indeed, public talk about them is obligatory. It is an incantation to keep the spirit of excellence from fading. It consists of certain partial lopsided truths whose deficiency is obscured by their familiarity. Socrates calls such speechless talk, such logos­ like utterance without present thought, belief or opinion. (Dóxa. Our favorite phrase to signal that an opinion is coming is: “I feel that…”) He thinks further that it is because we do not know what we mean when we talk of excellence, that we fail to be excellent.

By “knowing” he neither means being familiar with certain arguments and definitions, nor having some sort of competence or canniness in getting what one wants. (Hippias minor 365 d) He means that our souls are alight with, are filled with, what truly is. He means a knowledge so live and rich that it goes immediately over into action without leaving room for the mediation of a wavering or perverse will. Socrates’ first interest in knowledge is therefore practical, but I should say here that that knowledge vivid enough to pass immediately into deed will also be an end in itself, a realm in which to dwell beyond all action, and that this is yet another one of the great Socratic paradoxes. (Phaedo 66 b, Phaedrus 247, Republic 517 b)

To be cured of being caught in mere opinion, we must know how this state is possible. Socrates finds only one explanation plausible: What we have beliefs and opinions about cannot be the same as what we think seriously about. (Republic 477) The name of our object may be the same, but we cannot have the same thing in mind when we just talk and when we truly speak. We are using our powers so differently when we have opinions and when we think that they amount to different powers and must have different objects. That is not really so odd an idea: We seem to switch mental gears when we pass from pontificating to thinking, and the matter we have gone into deeply is no longer what it was when we “knew” it superficially, just as the friend well known is often a wholly different person from the friend of first acquaintance. The superficial glance is reflected by a mirror-like surface of seeming that masks the depths which thinking seeks and in which it becomes absorbed.

That first aspect of the world that is the object of opinion, the world whose very nature it is to seem and then to vanish before closer inspection, Socrates calls becoming, because it is always coming to be and never quite what it is. It is the world which is before our eyes. Our first fascination is with the shifting, inexact, contradictory things before our eyes, or with the obtrusive opinions of our fellows. These are our unavoidable beginnings. (Phaedo 74 a) But as we penetrate the visible surface and search into those opinions, a new world appears, now not to the eye of sight but of thought, steadfast in being such as it is, of a powerful “suchness,” shapely, unique. Socrates calls this world being. He understands it to be all that knowledge requires. In knowing we have a sense of being anchored, rooted in something stable and lucid that the eye of the soul can behold. (Phaedo 99 d) It is the world of the eidos understood as the object of knowledge, the knowable eidos (Republic 511 a).

Yet, Socrates by no means regards the knowable eidos as a mere contrivance for granting himself knowledge. On the contrary, he thinks that we are, all of us, capable of the experience of going into ourselves in thought, led on by the beckoning eidos, a process so vividly like the raising of a memory that he calls it, mythically, “recollection,” the calling-up of a primordial memory. (Meno 81, Phaedo 73) The way to the eidos is by a passage through our own souls, not by a penetration of external things—or better, these two ways are one.

The eidos, I must add, is knowable, but it is not knowledge. It confronts the soul and is not of it. To put it in modern terms: It is a presence to the soul, but not a representation within it. We might say that Being is for us irre­duceably aspectual: We look at it and move among its articulations for it has a power of affecting the soul and being known. (Republic 511, Sophist 248 e) We may even, speaking figuratively, comprehend it. But we cannot pass into it. For Socrates philosophy, the desire for being, remains forever literally philosophy—an unfulfilled longing for knowledge.

V. Appearance and Being

The eidos is steadfast and lucid. But the world which envelops us is shifting and opaque. Yet the Greeks call what appears before our eyes the phenomena, which means ”what shines out,” “what shows itself,” for the things that appear glow and ensnare us by their kaleido­ scopic spectacle: We are all lovers of sights and sounds. (Republic 475 d) I should note here that although I cannot help talking of “things,” the appearances are not things in any strict sense since they have no “reality” (which is but Latin for “thinghood”), no compacted, concrete character. Socrates sometimes uses the word “business,” “affairs” (prágmata), for our world. The “phenomena” sparkle busily, but it is all surface.

Now the systematic illusions and the serried variety of appearance can be mastered by various sciences, for example, the sciences of measuring, numbering, and weighing. (Republic 602 d) Yet there is still a recalcitrant residue, an incorrigible phenomenality that shows itself as a two-fold multiplicity. First there are always many irreducibly diverse items of a kind: many different beautiful things, many different just acts. And second, no particular beautiful thing and no particular just act is that way perfectly, unbudgeably, purely, but each changes as our perspective on it changes in time or place. Appearance as appearance is scattered and shimmering, fragmented and iridescent.

But most of all it is not what it shows, or to put it plainer: Appearance is appearance of something, it points beyond itself. What is that whose refracted form appears to us in appearance? What appears in appearance must be in itself invisible. This invisible eidos is what Socrates thinks of as the being behind appearance, and appearance is becoming regarded as a manifestation. This eidos which is a being, is all that appearance and becoming are not: not scattered but one; not multiform but of a single look (Phaedo 78 d); not mixed but pure (66 a); not passive but potent (Sophist 247 e); not elusive and illusory but steadfast and true; not for busy show but the thing in its verity, the very thing (to auto pragma); not self-contradictory but self-same (Phaedo 78 d, Cratylos 386 e); not dependent and of something, but itself by itself, absolved from subservience, or “uabsolute” (as later commentators render Socrates’ deliberately naive term “by itself”); unique, immortal, indestructible (Phaedo 78 d), outside time and beyond place. (Phaedrus 247 b) All that lies in Socrates’ simplest expression: the Just, the Beautiful.

Whatever has this characteristic of potent, shapely, and, one might almost say, “specific” self-sameness is called a being. It provides such “beingness” (ousia, Cratylos 386 e, Meno 72 b) as appearances have, and it does this by somehow “being by,” having presence in them. (parousia, Phaedo 100 d) The eidetic beings are responsible for the fact that the question “What is it?” asks not only what the thing is but also what it is: every “whatness,” all quality, brings being with it.

Beings, once again, are not “real,” for they are not things and do not move in the categories true of things, nor do they “exist,” for to exist means to be here and now.[10] But they are not unreal or non-existent either. They are, in the way described, and as they appear they give things their looks, their visible form. (Phaedo 104 d)

VI. Same and Other

The being I have named so often is not Socrates’ discovery. It comes to him from those so prejudicially called Presocratics, in particular from Parmenides who entered the sanctuary of being in a blazing chariot. Thus, it comes to Socrates already fraught with established controversy and difficulties. Even he has an inherited legacy of “problems,” that is to say, of questions posed in terms of his predecessors’ inescapable doctrines. Questions posed in this way, as problems, notoriously have resolutions which pose more and tighter problems, and thus is launched the tradition of professional philosophy. Socrates does not escape this unfresh beginning.

This is the problem Socrates takes up when still almost a boy: the being Father Parmenides discovered is and nothing else. It is, one and only, without distinction or difference, for we cannot think or speak what is utterly not. There is no sentence which does not contain, audibly or latently, an “is,” an assertion of the truth of being. Such austere attention to what speech always says is not primitive. Listen to W. H. Auden:

Words have no words for words that are not true. [“Words”]

What Parmenides says—that what is, is, and in merely being is without inner distinction, all one—is compelling since we have no immediate speech with which to deny it; we cannot say: “Being is different from itself; being is not being; being is not-being.” But it is also monstrous: It negates both our multifarious world, the one in which we are at home, along with the very possibility of articulate speech itself, since we may never say anything of anything other than that it is. Because Parmenides’ grand insight brings all articulating speech to a halt, his zealous follower Zeno does not attempt to defend his position, but, instead, cleverly attacks the opposition, who continue to talk and say that being is not one but many. He understands the claim that being is many to require that being be at once like and unlike itself, self-contradictory, unthinkable. But Socrates knows both that the visible world, at least, is like that and that thoughtful speech cannot bear such self-contradiction. He offers a supposition which saves at the same time the integrity of that which speech is always about; namely, this “is” which is at the heart of every logos, and the manifest multiplicity and inconsistency of appearance as it is revealed in speech. He saves Parmenides from sinking into the white silence of being.

Socrates’ supposition is the eidos, which is not being it­self but a being. His resolution is that being is many, but not confused. The eide are each self-same, as being should be, but they are also diverse from each other. The appearances somehow “participate” in these beings in such a way that the diverse beings intersect in them and are superimposed. Thus the appearances become self-opposed; the eide save at once the purity of being and the alloy of becoming. Young Socrates shrugs off Parmenides’ problem about multiplicity with the phrase: “Where’s the wonder?” (Parmenides 129 b), the universal paean of those who have resolved another’s perplexity. An older Socrates will say that philosophy is wonder.

Socrates’ solution, that there are several and diverse beings, of course poses new problems. The most telling of these is that each being is also a non-being—at least it is a not-being; it is not what the other beings are. Hence Zeno’s problems with the self-opposition of the world of appearance has been but raised into the realm of being. A few weeks before the end of his life Socrates is present at a great moment in the course of philosophy when a visitor from Parmenides’ country presents, by way of resolving this higher problem, a momentous elaboration of Socrates’ supposition which, while turning it almost irrevocably into a “theory,” advances it greatly. For if Socrates had shown how we can come to terms with the inherent and unavoidable self-opposition of the world of appearance, the visiting stranger will go on to show how we can account for the spurious being deliberately invoked in false and fraudulent human speech.

The stranger begins his solution of Socrates’ problem by establishing that all the eide are beings, and that they must therefore all take part in being itself; they all belong to a highest eidos, the eidos Being. But then the stranger boldly claims that there is also another, unheard of, eidos which ranges in a peculiar way through all the eide. This eidos is indeed not-being, but not-being rightly understood, understood as a being. (Sophist 258 c) He calls it the Other. The eidos of the Other runs through all beings and makes them other than each other—not what the other is. By being scattered through all being the Other is the cause of its pervasive distinction and difference. It is a peculiar principle which relates by opposition and unifies by diversity, for since all have otherness in common, their very community makes them different. It makes all beings confront each other. It is the very eidos of relativity. It is not a new name for non-being that the stranger contributes, but a new view of the world as articulated and bonded through difference. It is a world in which the fact that we take one thing for another and speak falsely, as we surely do, is accounted for: to say what is false is not to say nothing or what is not, but to say something other than what is the truth.

The stranger mentions in passing also another principle, evidently not itself an eidos among eide, but comprehending, surpassing, and beyond all being. He calls it the Same (254 e), in antithesis to the Other. It is that which gives the eidos of Being, and through it all the beings, their very own nature, their steadfast abiding by themselves, their being what they are through and through: the Same gives the eide their self-sameness. It is the culminating principle. Depending on how it is approached, it is also called the Good, because it gives beings their vividness and fittingness (Republic 509 a), and in Plato’s “Unwritten Teachings”—recall that he declined to write down the most central things—it seems to have been called the One, because it is the first and final totality. Socrates speaks of it explicitly, though in metaphor, but once, likening it to the sun because it gives the eide their luminous sight-likeness. (Republic 509 b)

Aristotle told a story of Plato’s famous lecture on the Good, which he held at his school, the Academy. People came in droves, expecting to hear something fascinating to themselves, about health or wealth or power. But it was all about arithmetic and how the eide are a certain kind of number, ending up with the just-mentioned revelation that the Good is the One. So they got disgusted and drifted off. (Aristoxenus, Elements of Harmony II, 30) Mr. Klein used to add—as if he had been there—that only one person stayed, comprehending and critical. That was Aristotle himself.

What Plato spoke about then was what is called dialectic in the last and strongest sense, thinking by and through the eide (Republic 511 C, 532), attending to their grouping, hierarchy, interweaving or “intertwining” (symploké, Sophist 240 c). Such dialectic, the ultimate use of the logos and the philosophical activity proper, appears in the dialogues but once, namely in the Sophist, and scholars have not succeeded in recovering much of it. There is, I might add, a chapter in Mr. Klein’s book on Greek mathematics which engages in true dialectic and tells how the eidos Being can be understood as the number Two.[11]

VII. Original and Image

There is one greatest, almost overwhelming, perplexity about the eide which Socrates knows about from the very beginning. (Parmenides 131 c) How can an eidos do the very business for which Socrates has submitted it to us? Are not the eidos-units,

being each one and ever the same and receptive neither to becoming nor to destruction, ever steadfastly the same? But having entered into becoming, must such an eidos-unit not be posited either as scattered and having become many within the things that are becoming, or, if it is still whole, then as separated from itself, which latter would be the greatest impossibility—that one and the same thing should be at once in one and many? [Philebus 15 b]

Then how can the eidos be the source of the appearances around us, how can it have truck with what is always changing and multiple? This question can be called the “lower participation problem” since it deals not with the community the eide have with each other but with that which is below them. How do we understand the working relations which the eide—once we suppose them to be—­have to the variety, the passages and the contradictions of our world of appearance? It is the most pressing Socratic problem.

Socrates uses a number of terms to name this relation. He speaks of the partaking, the “participation” (méthexis, Phaedo 100-102) of the appearances in the eidos, but, of course, he does not mean a part-taking as when people take up a part of an awning they sit under. (Parmenides 131 b) He speaks of a community of the eidos, and the appearances, of the appearances being named after the eidos, of the presence of the eidos in them. (e.g. Phaedo 100 c,d, 103 b) These terms indicate that the two realms are strongly related, but they do not reveal what the appearances can have in common with beings, or why they merit being named after beings, or how the beings can be present in them.

But Socrates does use another group of words which tell more. He speaks of participation through similarity, likeness, imaging, imitation. (Phaedrus 250 a, Phaedo 74 e, Timaeus 39 e and, above all, Republic 510 b)

The thought that our world should stand to the realm of eide as copy to exemplar (Parmenides 132 d, Timaeus 48 e) has a certain high plausibility. It conveys a falling off from the fullness of being, an imitative, derivative mode. It suggests that one original eidos will have many image­ appearances, and that no appearance can stand free, but most appear, like all the images with which we are familiar, incarnate in some stuff, as the statute of Socrates is worked in marble. (Timaeus 52 c) It indicates how every appearance could be doubly dependent: on the eidos for being visible, and on our sight for being seen. If the appearances somehow image the eide, their inferiority, multiplicity, materiality, and sensuality becomes comprehensible­ and so does the fact of their inescapably beguiling books.

There are, however, apparently devastating difficulties with this primordial imitation. Of these one is most vulnerable to formal argument: If the eidos is what is originally beautiful, and beautiful things are copies, and if the likeness of copies to their originals comes from their sharing the same quality, then both have the quality of being beautiful. It follows that the eidos of beauty is beautiful, as the eidos of justice is just—and Socrates does not scruple to say just that. (Protagoras 330 c, Symposium 210 c) But that way of speaking, that beauty is beautiful, is an insupportable redundancy, called by scholars “self-predication.” Furthermore, if the function of the eidos was to account for the fact that anything is beautiful, then another eidos beyond will have to be posited to account for the fact that the eidos itself has been said to be beautiful. Aristotle calls this dilemma the “Third Man,” because behind the man and the man-like eidos of mankind there must appear a third man-eidos. (Metaphysics 90 b)

But these terrible perplexities, whose various versions Socrates knows about (Parmenides 132 d, Republic 597 c), miss the point. Socrates so often chooses to employ the phrase “the beautiful” rather than the noun of quality “beauty,” not because he is simply deaf to the fact that in Greek, as in English, the former phrase sounds as if it meant a beautiful thing, being an adjective turned into a substantive. He speaks that way because he means to make us face the self-same “suchness” of the eidos, to divert our desire from the apparent beauty of the appearances to a better but invisible beauty, to convey its greater desirability, to persuade us to “look to” it. The turns of speech that call the eidos verily beautiful, through and through beautiful, the beautiful itself, are philosophical rhetoric. They intend to evoke a new kind of longing, so that we may turn more willingly from that which appears as beautiful to seek that hidden sight which first makes it possible for us to see and say that anything on earth is beautiful. The eidos beauty is certainly not ugly, but no more is it to be described by the adjective “beautiful;” it is rather such as to be itself the sole source of the attribute in others. The word “beautiful” does not describe this suchness, but it reaches for it.

How then can beautiful things be images of beauty if it is not, as seems indeed to be impossible, by likeness, that is, by sharing the same quality? It is because imaging, mirroring, turns out to be the deepest capability of being, the accompaniment of the pervasive otherness which haunts it, that non-being which dogs every being. Each being confronts another as its other, and its own otherness is mirrored in the others.

For the image nature of an image is not really caught when we point out similarities, say of conformation and color, between it and its original. The closest we can come to telling what an image is, is to say that it is, in truth, not what it images, and then again it somehow is. We are apt to say of a little statue of Socrates looking like a pot-bellied satyr: “That’s Socrates,” but we know at the same time that it is not. We mean that Socrates is in some sense present in the stone—”represented”—but not genuinely, not in truth. For an image is that which in its very nature is not what it is; it is an interweaving of being and non-being. (Sophist 240 c)

Now among the beings, the eide, each is self-same and truly what it is, and also other than and not what the others are; its not-being is only with respect to the other beings; the interweaving of beings is not a commingling: the strands of being and non-being remain distinct. But becoming, Socrates explains, is an amalgam, a blending, of being and non-being. (Republic 477 a) The appearances commingle within themselves non-being and being; they have neither steady self-sameness nor fixed difference, and yet they seem somehow enduring and definite. In their very nature they are not what they are, and might on that account be called images of being. So here is a formal way of conceiving the claim that appearance images the eidos. But it must be said that it in no wise solves our greatest problem: how the eidos drops down from the context of being to become entangled with non-being in a new and world-making way—how there can be an eidos incarnate. (Phaedrus 251 a)

Socrates ascribes to us an initial power—most startling to see in children—of image recognition (eikasia, Republic 511 e), by which we identify a counterfeit as a counterfeit at the same moment that we recognize the original lurking in the imitation. (510 b) In its developed form it is a sense for what Mr. Klein once called the “duplicity of being.” It is our capacity for philosophy.


I have said what I think Plato’s Socrates thought, but I do not want this lecture to be what is, wonderfully, called an “academic” exercise, so I must now say what I think. But before I do that, let me make mention one last time of the name of Jacob Klein to whom this lecture is most certainly dedicated in loving memory and who—so good a teacher was he—taught me nothing but what I could straightway recognize as my own.

Socrates himself says of the eide that they have become buzz-words (Phaedo 100 b); there are even those people known, a little absurdly, as “the friends of the eide.” (Sophist 248 a) That kind of thing comes from being drawn and fascinated by Socrates’ sights without having ourselves seen them. What is more, Plato does not reveal, indeed conceals, in the dialogues the answer to the question: Did Socrates himself view the eide? Did anyone ever? In short: Are there accessible eide?

Therefore, our attention naturally turns to the Socrates through whom we hear of these matters and to his trustworthiness. And I find the man who is commemorated in the Dialogues trustworthy beyond all others. I trust his slyness and his simplicity, his sobriety and his enthusiasm, his playfulness and his steadfastness, his eros and his dignity. Yet it is not mainly his character that I trust, but his presuppositions, and I think that they must have formed him more than he did them.

I make Socrates’ presuppositions out to be these: That there is that in human life which stands out, that there are heights and that there is a way to them, an ascent. That what is desirable is at a distance, by itself and in itself, and therefore sight-like and yet invisible, and that there must be a means for reaching it. That this mediating power is speech, which is able to shape our irritable wonder at common things into that springboard of thought called a question. And first and last, that where there is a question, an answer has already been at work, and it is our human task to recollect it.

These presuppositions are not at all necessary. Our specific human work does not have to be thought of as arising from enthusiasm about the extraordinary or marveling at the common, as Socrates says philosophy does. (Theaetetus 155 d) It can come from a cool, sober sense that the ways of the world should be exposed and explained, its myths dismantled and its depths made plane; that not what is best but what is individual, not what is common but what is ordinary, should preoccupy our efforts; that we should not view but master, not play but work, not suppose but certify, not ask but determine, not long but draw limits. I am describing that self-controlled maturing of philosophy which is responsible for all that we call modernity. I do not think for a moment that we should play truant from this severe and powerful school. But I do think that Socrates’ suppositions are that philosophical beginning which can be forgotten but never superseded.

This lecture was presented at St. John’s College in Annapolis in 1974. It appeared in The St. John’s Review (Volume 32, No. 1, 1980) and is republished here with permission.

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[1] Let me add here that the next most important source of the Theory of Ideas, very difficult to use, is Aristotle, who reports its technical elaborations and problems and looks at it, as it were, askance.

[2] I am thinking of the so-called problems of participation and separation, of self-predication, of the Third Man, and of eidetic structure. Incidentally, in the Parmenides Socrates is portrayed as the supporter of that very version of the theory—that the ideas are “separate” from things­ which Aristotle explicitly denies he held. Aristotle makes this claim in a puzzling passage which is the prime source for all denials of Socrates’ authorship of the theory (Metapaysics 987 b).

[3] The meaning of theoria in Greek is, however, that of a viewing, a sight seen, contemplation, and in that sense the Ideas are very much a “theory.”

[4] A Socratic hypothesis is unlike a post-Baconian hypothesis in not being a conjecture to be verified by observations, that is, experience. It is a little closer to an astronomical hypothesis such as Plato is said by Simplicius to have first demanded. He required of astronomers an intellectual construct, a mathematical theory, devised to “save the phenomena,” that is, to display the anomalous appearances as grounded in regularities acceptable to reason. A Socratic hypothesis, however, is not a postulated construct but a discovered being.

[5] Nor is the translation “form” quite good, because it is too reminiscent of the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter. The eidos may “produce” a form in a thing (Phaedo 104 d) but it is not its form.

[6] I have given this presentation a questionable coherence by ranging through the dialogues as if Plato’s works constituted a planned-out whole. But then l believe that they do, and that what scholars consider the “development” of Plato’s thought from early to late dialogues is largely the advancing of one or the other of these different beginnings and aspects.

[7] Accordingly the Phaedrus, in which this beginning of philosophy is preeminently set out, was once, probably wrongly, thought to be Plato’s earliest dialogue.

[8] Of course, the visible things do not constitute the eidos, nor is the eidos their concept, that is, an abstraction from a class or the definition which selects its members.

I want to mention also that, although it is not his fixed usage, Plato does refer to the greatest eide as gene, genera, kindred groups (Sophist 254 d), thereby indicating that in the highest reaches eidetic shapeliness yields to associative characteristics.

[9] For Socrates methodos means a path of inquiry (Republic 533 b) indicated by the inquiry itself, not a pre-set investigatory procedure.

[10] (a) The word ousia did play a role analogous to modern “reality” in common language. As we speak of “real” estate, Greeks used ousia to mean one’s property or substance.

(b) Scholars attribute to Socrates the distinction between two uses of the verb “to be,” the predicative and the existential. In its predicative use “is” acts as a copula, a coupling between the subject of discourse and what is said of it, as in “This face is beautiful.” The existential “is” occurs in the chopped-off sentence “Justice is,” meaning “is to be found sometimes, somewhere in the world;” but “Justice exists.” But distinctions in verbal usage are not Socrates’ aim. When we say that “this face is beautiful,” he will ask what beauty is, or, again, when we assert that “justice exists” he may want to know in what realm—and it will not be one which has time and place.

[11] Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (The M.I.T. Press) 1968 7 c, 79 ff.

In brief, it goes like this: According to the stranger the eidos of Being is composed of two eide, change and stillness (Sophist 254 d), since first of all everything that is, is either in motion or at rest, though never both at once; these eide never mingle. Being is not either of these alone, or their mixture, but precisely both together. That, however, is just how number assemblages behave; Socrates himself draws attention to this fact in that favorite formula: each one, both two. (Hippias major 301 a, Phaedo 97 a, Republic 476 a, Theaetetus 146 e). Each unit in a number remains what it was, one, but both together have a new name and nature, two; they are together what neither is by itself. Being, the highest eidos, would then be the eidetic Two—not anything above or beyond the two eidetic units, change and stillness, which constitute it, but simply their being together. Aristotle reports the Academy’s interest in the arithmetic organization of the eide. (Metaphysics 987 b). He also points out that the eidetic units are not, like arithmetic units, indifferent, and so capable of being “thrown together” any which way, that is, added, (1081 a). They can only associate into unique eidetic numbers, each according to its nature; such eidetic counting, which drives speech to and then beyond its limits, is dialectic proper.

The featured image is “Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville” by Hubert Robert (1733–1808) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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